THE PITCH: Super-sleuth military policeman turned dispossessed drifter Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) aids crusading lawyer Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike) investigate conspiracy involving a sniper accused to shooting five random citizens in Pittsburgh.
MONEY SHOTS: A "CSI"-type montage reveals a fingerprint on a quarter in a parking meter. Reacher credibly takes down five assailants in a bar fight. Later, two guys with baseball bats attack Reacher, but in a confined space, do more damage to each other. Reacher beats up one guy with the back of another guy's head. In the film's centerpiece car chase, Reacher pursues the bad guys while policeman pursue him.
MONEY SOUND: The engine of Reacher's borrowed Chevrolet Chevelle SS rumbles like the overture to the chase, and shows a little influence from last year's Drive, in a good way.
SO WHO IS THIS REACHER FELLOW? Apart being a massive badass with Holmesian powers of observation, Jack Reacher lives off the grid and owns basically nothing but the clothes off his back. The film finds low-key humor in Reacher's habit of taking the bus and borrowing cars from people who try to get the best of him. Cruise might be physically miscast as the six-foot-five character, but to his credit, the actor doesn't attempt to seem taller than he is, with Pike looking him eye-to-eye for the whole movie.
BEST LINE: "I need to see something," demands an officious auto parts store manager, wanting Reacher to provide identification. "How about the inside of an ambulance?" Reacher replies.
WORST LINE: When Rodin asks how her father (Richard Jenkins) knows about her activities, he replies, "I'm the district attorney. It's my business to know."
BODY COUNT: About seventeen, but closer to two dozen if you count thugs beaten to insensate pulps. It feels like more, because the film shows the opening sniper fatalities multiple times. The kill most likely to make the audience exclaim comes when Reacher brains a goon with a rock.
GRISLY MAN: In an inspired bit of stunt casting, filmmaker/morbid narrator Werner Herzog plays the film's primary bad guy, a ruthless Russian with a pale eye, missing fingers and a delightfully menacing way with words.
FLESH FACTOR: Early in the film we glimpse an unknown lady friend of Reacher wearing a thong and nothing else. Later Reacher hangs out with no shirt - see, he owns only one shirt at a time, and it's soaking in the sink - and Cruise's chiseled torso suggests that Reacher hangs out that the gym between bus trips.
INSIDE JOKE: One of the big plot-point revelations comes when Reacher and Helen are looking over her evidence-cluttered desk, a wink at the bulletin board of clues from McQuarrie's Oscar-winning script for The Usual Suspects.
HEY, WAIT A MINUTE: Jack Reacher is preceded by a trailer for the sci-fi film Oblivion starring Cruise as a guy named "Jack Harper." Will he next headline a "Three's Company" feature film as Jack Tripper?
BETTER THAN THE BOOK? No. Author Lee Child writes thrillers so spare and propulsive that even fancy literary publications like The New Yorker give him props, and Jack Reacher's source novel One Shot is one of his best. At more than two hours, the film version drags unnecessarily, and Pike fails to provide a forceful enough performance when Cruise is off-camera.
OVERTAKEN BY EVENTS: Jack Reacher has the bad luck to arrive in theaters exactly a week after the Sandy Hook shooting and even has a character named "Sandy." (Ouch.) Robert Duvall turns up as a gun range owner nicknamed "Gunny," and his reference to the local firearms enthusiasts - "They're mighty touchy about their constitutional rights" - echoes the current gun control debate more directly than the filmmakers ever intended.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Cruise's sheer intensity mostly succeeds in compensating for his character's intimidating physique, and Jack Reacher offers an adequately compelling central mystery with some exciting set pieces. McQuarrie tries too hard to establish Reacher as the cineplex's next big action hero - all the film lacks is a "Shaft"-style theme song - but Jack Reacher keeps you interested enough to want to see how it all ends.
Jack Reacher. 3 stars. Directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Stars Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike. Rated R. Opens Fri., Dec. 21. At area theaters.
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